Monday, 21 September 2020

What Counts as a F*** You Moment?

If there is one principle upon which I submit almost RPGs agree, it is that 'fuck you' moments are weak DMing. They belong in the realm of bad fantasy game books, in which you are regularly faced with binary choices in which one option leads to death without any fair warning whatsoever. 

The devil, as always, is in the detail. What is a 'fuck you' moment? It is one in which a PC blamelessly dies or suffers serious harm. But that definition needs teasing out. We all know that if the PCs simply enter a room and the ceiling falls on their heads, and there was absolutely no way of them discovering this in advance or avoiding the result, then the DM is fucking them over. It's the edge cases, that are much more common, which need careful thought.

Here are some guidelines I think are appropriate:

1. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to make adequate preparation in advance and suffer harm as a result. If they fail to bring adequate light sources in to the dungeon and get trapped in the dark, for instance, then that is just a natural consequence of their own actions. 

2. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs simply get out of their depth in a dangerous environment as the result of a roll of the dice. The wilderness is dangerous. If they randomly encounter a red dragon in the mountains, and it kills them, it is not a 'fuck you' moment. (The analysis would be different if the DM simply inflicted a red dragon on them deliberately, on a whim.)

3. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to perform proper reconnaissance. This could be as simple as having a scout tapping the ground with a 10' pole in a dungeon, or as complex as sending an invisible servant into an orc den to establish its contents. If the ceiling falls on the PCs but they could have discovered it was unstable by just stopping and looking or listening, or tapping it with a spear, then the results are fair.

4. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is poisoned or paralysed by a monster or dungeon 'scenery' or similar. These are expected risks. 

5. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is made a target for revenge. If a PC makes enemies, then those enemies might attempt to assassinate, steal from, injure, or inconvenience him or her - and the results of this may be a complete surprise to the PC/player concerned. As long as the DM makes the appropriate rolls for those enemies fairly, then the results are also fair. 

Can we add any others, or nuance the above?

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Fourth Model

There are, I think, three basic models which DIY D&D publishers have divided between themselves. (I am talking about commercial publishers here, not the honourable ones who give things away for free.) 

1) The irregular-but-big model. Occasional megaprojects, basically, often done through kickstarters. See, for instance, Patrick Stuart.
2) The regular-but-smaller model, usually through Patreon. See, for instance, Michael Prescott.
3) The LLC model, meaning the creation of an actual publishing company with, like, a legal personality and stuff. See, for instance, LotFP. 

I wonder if there is a fourth. Let's call it the email newsletter option. 

You will be familiar, I hope, with the Fixed World, a project I have been working on semi-regularly for some years. The elevator pitch for the setting is that it is a world in which the sun is fixed in place, so that, depending on where you are, it will always be winter and night time, or autumn and dusk, or summer and dawn, and so on.

At the heart of the Fixed World idea is that it is really a love letter to paradigmatic D&D. It is about pushing that wide-eyed and slightly naive tone of the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual much further than it was taken back in those days, rooting the tone in 1980s high fantasy but expanding the palette a thousandfold - so that you get su-monsters owning vineyards, neogi heptarchs ruling over populations of puffin-headed orcs, ettercap queendoms, glacier cities filled with grimlocks, islands ruled by night hags, tribespeople who live off the bodies of dead dragons, and so on. 

In other words, it's big and strange and vibrant and weird when taken as a whole, but broken up into very small pieces it can be slotted into just about any 'standard' fantasy setting. 

That's where the newsletter comes in. What if the Fixed World did not come out as a book, but was released piecemeal to newsletter subscribers (for instance, via substack)? What if, say, once a week an adventure site or portion of a hexmap was released by email? And what if what was released was set nominally in the Fixed World, but could just as easily be part of any D&D setting? You could use a vineyard owned by a su-monster as an adventure site in your game, right? Or an abandoned heath-elf tomb? Or the ruin of a were-raven lord's keep? 

It's something that I am thinking about. Who knows if it will come to anything?

Yoon-Suin Kickstarter Trailer and Special Offer

I have completed a draft of the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin. Those of you who were hoping for a u-turn towards minimalist design will be disappointed. It adds approaching 150 pages of additional material, including new appendices, new monsters, new treasure tables, and 12 fully mapped, fully keyed adventure sites for varying party levels.

It will also have nice maps and lots more art. 

There will be a kickstarter announced in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have decided that I will have to, sadly, retire the original Yoon-Suin in PDF form. But it won't go without a bang: for the remainder of this month, you will be able to buy the PDF for £1 from the Noisms Games website. If for whatever reason you have been unable to make up your mind whether to get it or not, well, it's time to shit or get off the pot. 

Here is the link: https://noisms-games.squarespace.com

And here is a trailer, or amuse bouche if you will; these are the introductory paragraphs for all 12 of the new adventure sites.

The Mourning Garden of the Unrequited Lover 

The garden was created in joy, and defiled in sorrow by the one who made it. A brahmin who wished to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials with a pleasure garden to present to her groom, she was spurned at the last. Her name is now forgotten, but the garden remains as a testimony to love’s cruelty and caprice. It now lies hidden behind high walls of pale rose-coloured stone with its secrets and treasures intact. Human children from the quiet neighbourhood which surrounds it jest in whispers about climbing those walls someday, but even the bravest cannot be dared to do it; the best they can manage is to cluster at the garden’s iron gate, gaze inside, and then scatter in shrieks of delighted terror at some imaginary glimpsed-at horror within. 

The Hornet’s Sting 

Navigators in the Gulf of Morays make use of the constellation of the hornet as their guide, because the bright star at the point of its sting does not move in the night sky. Lying directly under this star is a small island. Some quirk of geographical fortune gives it an appropriate shape, for while it sits low on the horizon for the most part, at its northern end there suddenly spikes up a sheer needle-like crag rising six hundred feet into the air. From a distance, this even seems to slightly curve like the stinger of some vast insect otherwise submerged beneath the sea. For these reasons the name of the island is obvious, and is the same in all of the languages spoken by the many peoples who call the Gulf of Morays and its coasts home.  The island's reputation is also universal: at the tip of that crag lurks a huge spider of unearthly scale, visible from all around, and only an outlaw or lunatic would think it worth the attempt at landing.   

The Museum of Relics Gathered by Wu-U the Brave and Magnificent on His Voyages to the Four Corners of the Earth 

Red Hill is a neighbourhood of faded grandeur growing ramshackle and senescent. The Old Town surrounds it on three sides; the visitor cannot escape forming the impression that, like a sand bar exposed to the rising tide, its sleepy streets and half-deserted markets will soon be engulfed by the emptiness around it. At its very edge, at the point where the Old Town can truly be said to begin, stands Wu-U’s museum: a two-storied building of white stone with elegant colonnades and handsome tiled floors coated with dust. Whether Wu-U was brave or magnificent, as the sign above the entrance to his museum suggests, is not now remembered. Nor is it known whether he did indeed travel on voyages to the four corners of the earth - or even take any voyages at all. It is at least thought that relics can indeed be found inside, although the locals - despondent, decrepit, discouraging - insist that there are probably ghosts and demons protecting them, and that it is surely not worth entering to find out. 

The Pit Near “______” Somewhere in the thickness of the jungle the level ground suddenly falls away in a sheer drop and the traveller winces against the dazzling light of the sun with eyes that had grown accustomed to the shadows. He stands at the edge of a great circular hole, three hundred yards in diameter and a hundred feet deep, which looks not so much as though it was gouged from the surface of the earth, but rather that it was crushed downwards as though by the footstep of some gargantuan beast. He feels a slight breeze on his cheek where before there was only the still fetidness of the forest air, and he savours that moment as he surveys what lies before him. Steep cliffs overgrown with creepers and shrubs, broken here or there by the blackness of a cave. The bottom of the pit concealed almost entirely by the canopy of the trees growing there. A hornbill or monkey-eating eagle gazing at him as it passes, parallel with his position at the lip of the hole. And the dark surface of a pool, flat and unreflective in the shade cast by the great walls of the pit. 

The Ruin of the Dhole God’s Temple 

On a lonely, dusty mound rising up from the plain there sits a crumbling heap of brownish-yellow stone. In it there once sat a mighty avatar of the Dhole God, who hunted far and wide with his followers - men, women, and dholes - and whose name the local people dared not speak. He is now long gone, and the temple which he inhabited is this lonely ruin: a square base with a pyramid squatting on top, and a single minaret close by, the stone here and there speckled with red or white where once there was bright paint. Some memory of the fear which the place used to instil lingers in the minds of those who live nearby, and it now stands silent and rarely visited, a testament to how strength and power eventually fail, but are long in the fading. 

The Fighting Pits at Hailakundpur 

In lush, green Pajuli, where the grass grows shoulder high, where termite mounds rise up like the monoliths in some vast cemetery of giants, and where buffalo wallow in great herds in the fecund mud, there once stood a mighty city: Hailakundpur. Nothing is now left of it, except for a low hillock which rises above the grasslands like the dome of some massive sunken tomb. Here the grass grows short in the rocky ground, where chunks of masonry lie covered in the dust and soil of the eons. And on the top of this mound is a cluster of circular pits of various size, lined with clay bricks and connected by tunnels. They were once used by the people of Hailakundpur for the blood sports that they enjoyed, and according to legend remain haunted to this day by the souls of the men, women and animals who died there long ago. 

The Falls of the Pale Nãga 

Deep in the forests of Lamarakh a high shelf of land rises up in a sudden slab, as though placed there by some ancient race of giants in an antique age. Many of the countless rivers of the jungle plunge over the edge of this great sheet of earth, creating waterfall after waterfall up the hundred miles of its length. Most are nameless, and remote even from the knowledge of the boat tribes. But about others there are tales told, in mothers’ lullabies or storytellers’ songs, or written in tattoos on the skins of the wise. One such is the place known as the falls of the pale nãga, where a snake demigoddess of the purest white is said to hold sway over a series of waterfalls and pools which tumble down a steep slope like the sections of an ornamental fountain. In her realm, it is said, powerful magical beings are given sanctuary in return for abiding by the demigoddess’s laws, and the pale nãga herself is thought to hold court in one of its pools, where she sits in judgment in disputes and bestows her blessings and knowledge on those who come to offer her their fealty. 

The Tor of the Petrified Fakirs 

A low, flat tor rises above the badlands of Lower Druk Yul - a fortress of granite that stands resolute against the sweeping and unrelenting wind. From a distance, it looks perfectly level, as though a hill once jutted up from the ground here and was sliced away by a mighty sword close the ground. But as one gets closer, one begins to discern that there are bumps in its surface - what at first look like they might be dark, motionless figures, or the hunched backs of monsters, but which are gradually revealed to be boulders, monoliths, and a single hexagonal tower standing over them as an inscrutable sentinel. This is the resting place of the fakirs of the Unmoving and Impassable End, a cult for whose members the apotheosis of their faith is to merge their bodies with cold and unmoving stone, and thus complete the permanent transformation of flesh to rock, of spirit to material reality. Those who know of the place say that it may be possible to glean some precious fragments of knowledge from these wise men before they give themselves over entirely to the rock, just as a man might hope to gather some uncut precious stones from an exposed seam in the last moments before a landslide buries them. 

The Tower of the Experimenter in Light and Glass 

In a steep and narrow valley in a nameless range of arid hills in Lower Druk Yul there stands a tower. It is the only artificial thing for miles around, and it proudly proclaims that fact by looking unlike anything that could possibly exist in nature: a high finger of glass which gleams with multi-coloured refracted light whichever direction the sun is shining. From a distance it looks like a shard of a shattered rainbow has plummeted to earth and embedded itself deep into the ground. Up close, it is revealed to be a circular spire, five stories high, which is built from pinkish granite but whose walls are almost entirely comprised of huge sheet-like windows - some transparent, some coloured and opaque - which let the sun beams blaze through and scatter across the ground beyond. It was built by a madman who believed that all of the universe was made of light and that, by refracting, altering, dissipating and enhancing it, he could unravel the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. He has long gone. But his servants, and the results of his experiments, remain. 

The Mad Sorceress’s Blessed Retreat 

In a narrow valley high in the foothills of the great mountain Pachamuchare, a small lake lies hidden among the green that surrounds it. Its surface, covered with lilies and beds of reeds, is still and silent; its position, guarded by the slopes which rise up around it, cloaks it from the wind. The repose is only broken by the movements of the waterfowl who creep, splay-footed, across its surface, or the occasional tahr who ventures to the waterside to ripple its surface with a drink. It is here that the sorceress Khribtsun chose as the location for her summer residence - a place where she could sit in quiet comfort and enjoy the solitude of nature while contemplating her mystical arts. And when she was cursed by her enemies to a future of slow but inevitable descent into senility, it was to this place that she fled, rather than face the humiliation of being in the society of her peers as her mind decayed. Whether or not she dwells there still, few can say; if she does, then only the faintest scraps of her sanity can now remain. The more pertinent question to many is whether any of her treasures do. 

The Fields of Poppies Standing Unharvested 

The Pirimkul family once owned one of the most fertile and productive poppy plantations in the Yaghnub valley - the envy of the neighbouring dynasties up and down the length of the river. But two years ago, those neighbours noticed something unusual. The Pirimkul, unlike each autumn, were not taking in their harvest. Indeed, there seemed to be no activity taking place in their land at all. And nor were they attending any of the many festivals and tournaments which fill the calendar in the Yaghnub, like all the valleys of Sughd, throughout the year. Rumours spread. Had the Pirimkul taken ill? Had their pride, always their defining characteristic, got the better of them, such that they no longer considered themselves to be part of human society at all? Eventually, visits were made, and messengers sent, and it became clear that the Pirimkul had, with all of their servants and chattels, simply disappeared. Their plantation was deserted. But there was no clue as to where they had gone. Now their plantation lies quiet and overgrown; the fields grow high and unkempt, and the house and other buildings stand empty and eerily still. The fields still blaze merrily and prettily with the vivid colour of the flowers. But the plantation has taken on a reputation. One does not go there. Something terrible must have taken place within it. 

The Dwarves Who Forgot Their Own Names and Faces 

All over the highest places of the highest mountains, mountains which have never felt the touch of rain or the caress of the root of a tree, one finds the empty, silent gates of abandoned dwarven halls. Some are vast citadels, others are clearly forts or holdfasts, others tombs; many have functions now lost to time. One of them sits below the peak of Torugart, a week’s climb from the Oligarchy of Ibatash Vo. Its entrance is a circular black hole at the base of a sheer grey cliff shaped like a handprint pressed into the mountainside; on either side of the gate a single eye has been carved into the rock. Its name has long been forgotten, and so has its role, but there are, unusually, dwarfs who still live within - though they are very strange dwarves indeed. Wizened, crippled by age and long eons of cold, they go everywhere in masks which, while once they must have been removable, have over time come to be almost be a part of them, moulded to their flesh and impossible to take off. They can no longer remember what their own faces looked like, or even their names, much less what they once did or why they are there. Instead, they simply exist, hiding in their chambers and clutching their treasures lest they fall into the hands of the tulpas and other spirits which gradually rise up from the blackness below them.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The Modern Post-Apocalypse

Are you familiar with 'Without Sky', the astonishing (and astonishingly short - you can read it in 5 minutes) piece of micro-fiction/philosophical treatise/prophecy/strategy document penned by Vladislav Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin's closest advisors?

Set aside for a moment conspiracy thinking about Russian influence over Western democracy, which I think has always said more about the insecurity of Western democracy in our current moment than the activities of the Russian state. What is abundantly clear is that the people in charge in Russia appear to have grasped something about the instability of advanced modernity that those of us in more pampered societies are only beginning to understand. A few days ago, off the cuff, I was chatting to a friend about the state of our country (the UK) and I found myself making the observation that it feels as though we are at war, but against nobody. I was suddenly reminded of Surkov's story, and the image it depicts of a war in which there are not two sides, but many ever-fluctuating coalitions; in which some sides fight not to win, but to lose; and in which the belligerents are not states, but individual cities, professions, generations or sexes. It sounds very unlike our world, and yet also somehow reminiscent of it. 

Nick Bostrom has an interesting thought experiment. In it, humans are engaged in a continual process of taking balls out of an urn. Some of the balls they take out are white: these represent inventions that are beneficial on the whole. (The discovery of antibiotics, for instance.) Some are grey: these represent inventions for which the results are mixed (for example, TV or nuclear power). None so far have been black: this would be an invention that invariably or by default destroys the society which invented it. Bostrom's concern is that AI, or one particularly AI, could be such an invention. But in my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether we haven't already pulled a black ball out of the urn, and we just haven't got the point yet of realising that it will end up in our ruination: social media, and the way it has turned us,  over the course of only 15 years or so, utterly loopy. 

Be that as it may, the idea of the post-apocalypse not as the aftermath of an extinction-level event (nuclear war, plague, global warming, new ice age, whatever) but as an ongoing and unending descent into non-linear war and thenceforth chaos increasingly interests me. For a long time, as long-term readers will be know, I have been playing around with Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, a campaign setting which exists within the memory of an ancient crocodile demigod, into which an ancient race (the Naacals) entered, and into which YOU TOO can adventure. These days I wonder if the more interesting question would be: what if what was inside the crocodile's memory palace leaked out into our reality? Not immediately, but slowly, and progressively. In a random and haphazard, jumbled-up sort of way. As if one were to wake up one day, look out of the window, and realise that half the local park had become a fragment of a city populated by birds. Or one were to switch on the news one evening to see images of an army of early hominids led by Ethiopian knights marching on Kathmandu, or Caracas, or Bergen? Or if one were sent a whatsapp message by a friend with a link to a pornographic website showing people mating with hideous amphibian beasts of the Carboniferous period. Or if one received a phone call from a colleague when about to set off on the morning commute, telling you not to come into work because there were men in the building wearing face paint and feathers and armed with blowguns and clubs, slowly killing everyone, room by room, floor by floor. Then, what if you accelerated that process over the course of 10, 50 or 100 years and imagined how the world would then look, and used that as the start of the campaign?

Just some idle thoughts on a Wednesday lunch time. 

Monday, 7 September 2020

RPG Theory: Moments for Taking the New Ball

I'm now going to do something I rarely if ever do: give technical advice, rooted in theory, for making your campaign better.

A long time ago I wrote this, about Ben Bova's advice to novelists: every time your protagonist solves one problem, give him or her two more. This not only ratchets up the tension; it also gives the plot a drive and momentum all of its own. 

Often (usually) this happens organically. Indeed, as play goes on it will often be unavoidable. Through the very process of solving one problem, PCs will tend to generate opportunities to create others. Nonetheless, there are certain times during a campaign which you can think of as prime targets for the "two problems for every solution" technique. I have recently been thinking of them as opportunities to 'take the new ball'. 

In a test match in cricket, the fielding side gets the opportunity, after 80 overs have been bowled, to change the old ball (soft and relatively slow) for a new one (polished, very fast, and very hard). This is always the moment to look forward to in the rhythms of a test match (which takes 5 days to play), because it has a way of suddenly expediting things in unpredictable ways. It makes it easier for the bowling side to get the batsmen out, but it also makes it easier for the batsmen to score (because the hard ball moves more quickly off the bat as well as out of the bowler's hand). If it's two skilled batsmen who have been batting for a long time and have hence got their eye in, the new ball can dislodge them - or it can allow them to suddenly accelerate the rate of scoring. So taking the new ball can go either way. It can suddenly swing the match in a new direction, out of its established pattern.

There are moments in an RPG campaign like this. These are the moments when new problems can be introduced and the established pattern can be broken. Let's list some:

Back to town: Particularly when the PCs have brought back treasure. This is a natural time for new problems to assert themselves. For instance: the PCs become targets of thieves, or they have to search for somebody to whom to sell a specialist or magical item, or they let slip where they have been and are followed by NPC adventurers who want in on the action, or they sell something to a powerful magician and he binds them to get more for him with a geas, or many other things that will spring to mind, or - better - more than one of these things happens.

Between sessions: This is the DM's thinking time, and he should use it so that, when the next session begins, it has momentum. Maybe when the next session starts, the DM informs the PCs they have all seen the same dream. Maybe at the beginning of the next session they're visited by an old ally who needs their help. Maybe it's when longstanding enemies choose their moment to strike. Whatever: this is a natural break in which the DM can give himself a half-time team talk and come out in the next session with all guns blazing.

Long distance travel: When the PCs are moving across the hexmap, other pieces should be moving elsewhere too. These could be big, seismic campaign-setting level shifts (an earthquake, a volcano, a plague, an invasion, a dragon attack). Or they could be moves by known NPCs (spies, rivals, villains, allies). When the PCs arrive where they are going, or return from a journey, they find out there have been changes while they've been away. They always should.

Night time: Surprisingly effective when the PCs are staying, for instance, at an inn or tavern. In the morning, the barmaid informs them somebody came asking questions about them last night. Or there was a murder in another room. Or, during the night, there's a fire - or enemies come calling.

Think about the maxim: two problems for every solution. (These should be natural consequences of what the PCs have done previously, of course, and there is a fine art to this; whatever happens should seem like the organic consequence of player choice, except for the really unusual event like an earthquake.) Then, think about moments for putting this into effect - the new ball opportunities which inevitable arise during a campaign.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

On the Unnecessariness of Evil Humanoids and the Virtue of the Tentpole Monster

We all love a goblin or ogrillon, and don't get me started on gnolls. But these days I increasingly wonder what function evil humanoids really have in a game. Humans can be evil and scary enough.

For example, I provide you with a link to a recent Sam Harris podcast on the proviso that once heard, some things cannot be unheard: https://samharris.org/podcasts/213-worst-epidemic/. (I hesitate to do so, but feel that this sort of thing needs to be known so we can somehow guard against it; needless to say, if ever there ought to be a trigger warning, consider this to be it. Don't listen to it if there is any indication the contents will upset you, because they will.) If you ever needed convincing that humans are capable of much worse than even the evilest of orcs, then you will be convinced by that. Others of you may prefer to look up the exploits of Fred West, Oskar Dirlewanger, or any of the other thousands of names in that infamous roll call of psychopaths and sadists which has plagued mankind since we split off from the chimpanzees. 

The ancients understood good and evil, because they lived in a world in which evil was inescapable. (I'm reminded of Romeo Dallaire's comment: "After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.") It was all around them and they knew it intimately. No goblins or orcs, there. Just each other.

I recently finished reading Flaubert's Salammbo. Here are some extracts:

But a cry, an appalling cry broke out, a roar of pain and anger; it was the seventy-two elephants rushing in a double line, Hamilcar having waited for the Mercenaries to be concentrated in one place before loosing them; the Indians had goaded them so vigorously that blood flowed over their great ears. Their trunks, daubed with red lead, stood up straight in the air, like red serpents; a spear was fitted on their chests, their backs were armoured, their tusks extended by curved steel blades like sabres - and to make them fiercer they had been made drunk with a mixture of pepper, neat wine, and incense. They shook their collars full of little bells, trumpeted; and their drivers bent their heads beneath the shower of fire-arrows which began to rain from the towers. 

The Barbarians rushed into a compact mass to offer better resistance; the elephants charged into the midst of them. The spurs on their chests, like the prow of a ship, tore through the cohorts, which flowed back in great waves. They choked men with their trunks, or tore them from the ground and delivered them to the soldiers in the towers; they used their tusks to disembowel them, and threw them up in the air, so that long entrails hung around their ivory teeth like bundles of rigging on a mast. The Barbarians tried to put out their eyes, to cut their hamstrings; others slid under their bellies, drove a sword in up to the hilt and were crushed to death; the boldest clung to their harnesses...Fourteen of those who were on the far right, maddened by their wounds, turned on the second rank; the Indians seized their mallet and chisel and drove  it with all their might into the head joint...The huge beasts toppled over, falling on top of each other. It was like a mountain, and on this heap of armour and corpses a monstrous elephant known as 'Baal's Wrath', caught by the leg between the chains, stayed bellowing until evening with an arrow in his eye.

*

The phalanx exterminated the remnant of the Barbarians at their leisure. When the swords came they held out their throats and closed their eyes. Others defended themselves to the end; they were killed from a distance, by stoning, like mad dogs. Hamilcar had recommended the taking of prisoners. But the Carthaginians were reluctant to obey him, finding it so enjoyable to stick their swords into the Barbarians' bodies. As they were too hot, they began to work with bare arms, like reapers; and when they paused for breath, their eyes followed a horseman galloping after a soldier running away in the countryside. He managed to catch him by the hair, held him like that for a time, then struck him down with a blow from his axe.

*

The two thousand Barbarians were tied up against the steles of the tombs in the Mappalia; and merchants, kitchen porters, embroiderers, even women, widows of the dead with their children, anyone who wanted to, came along to kill them with arrows. They took slow aim, to prolong the torment; they alternately raised and lowered their weapons; and the crowd jostled and screamed. The palsied were brought along on litters; many had the foresight to bring food with them and stayed until evening; others spent the night there. Drinking tents had been set up. Several people made a lot of money by hiring out bows.

*

He came out bent double, with the bewildered look of a wild beast suddenly set free.

The light dazzled him; he stayed still for a while. All had recognised him and held their breath. 

This victim's body was something special for them, endowed with almost religious splendour. They leaned forward to see him, especially the women. They were burning with eagerness to look at the man who had caused the deaths of their children and their husbands; and from their inmost heart, despite themselves, surged up an infamous curiosity, a desire to know him completely, an urge mingled with remorse, which transformed itself into an extra degree of execration...

From the place where he stood several roads led off in front of him. In each a triple row of bronze chains, fixed to the navels of the Pataeci Gods, stretched in parallel from one end to another; the crowd was crammed against the houses and, in the middle, walked the Elders' servants, brandishing lashes.

One of them gave him a great push forward; Matho began to walk...[They] cried that he had been allowed too wide a path; and he went, probed, pricked, ripped by all those fingers; when he reached the end of one street, another appeared; several times he hurled himself sideways to bite them, they quickly drew away, the chains held him back, and the crowd burst out laughing.

A child tore off his ear; a girl, hiding the point of a spindle under her sleeve, split open his cheek; they tore out handfuls of hair, strips of flesh; others with sticks on which were stuck sponges soaked in filth dabbed at his face. On the right side of his throat spurted a stream of blood; at once delirium began...The people's rage developed as it was gratified; the chains were too tightly stretched, bent, nearly broke; they did not feel the slaves hitting them to push them back; others clung to ledges of the houses; every opening was full of heads; and the harm they could not do him they shouted...

Shadows passed before his eyes; the town whirled round in his head, his blood streamed out from a wound in his hip, he felt he was dying; his legs folded, and he slowly collapsed on the pavement.

Someone fetched, from the perisyte of the temple of Melkarth, the bar of a tripod red hot from the coals and...pressed it against the wound. The flesh smoked visibly; the people's booing drowned his voice; he stood up... Drops of boiling oil were thrown at him with tubes; shards of glass were sprinkled under his feet; he went on walking. At the corner of the street of Sateb he leaned against the low roof of a shop, back to the wall, and went no further.

The slaves of the Council struck him with their hippopotamus hide whips, so furiously and so long that the fringes of their tunics were soaked with sweat. Matho seemed insensible; suddenly he gathered his forces, and began to run at random, his lips making the sort of noise people make when shivering with intense cold....

Except for his eyes his appearance was no longer human; he was just a long shape, completely red from top to bottom; his broken bonds hung along his thighs, but could not be distinguished from the tendons of his wrists which had been completely stripped of flesh; his mouth remained wide open; two flames came from his eye sockets which seemed to go up to his hair; and the wretch kept walking!


Lamentations of the Flame Princess eat your heart out, right? 

Humans are malicious and cruel to animals and each other; we not only inflict pain and misery as a matter of course, but we enjoy it - as Flaubert understood, given the right circumstances, we will fall over ourselves to get the chance to be the one drawing blood. Don't flatter yourself that we're any different to the people of ancient Carthage underneath it all. It's just that the thin red line of law, order and civilisation is a wee bit thicker for us than it was for them. It could break in an instant when the time is right, as the history of the 20th century showed time and time again.

Seen in this light, the worlds of D&D make much more sense imagined as a world not of multiple humanoid races, but one much more like the way the ancients imagined it: there are humans, and there are monsters, and the monsters are not monstrous because they are evil but because of what they symbolise. They are there to be defeated, so that mankind can demonstrate its strength and cleverness. Like the Hydra, the Sirens, or the Erymanthian Boar, they are there to make us fearful, but, ultimately, to conquer.

This means that I increasingly lean towards what you might called a Howardian view on monsters. They should be singular, special, and very difficult to beat - tentpoles, if you like, just as a campaign has its tentpole dungeons. Not there to be evil, but for the PCs to triumph over through wit, skill and strength. Evil, we can leave to ourselves. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

A Woeful Picture: The Shadow by Jeff Butler (?), Reviewed

There is a prima facie case to be made that the Shadow is an interesting, even frightening, monster. A non-corporeal entity comprised only of darkness; something that was once a person but which has been cursed to spend eternity as a literal shade of what it once was, and to spread that curse as far and wide as it can. You can spin it into something akin to a vampire, or something akin to a zombie plague, or really anything in between. 

You can even get a little excited about how you could give effect in your campaign to the slightly cornball antics suggested by this:

[S]hadows do not hoard treasure. In fact, such earthly baubles only help to remind [them] of their former lives. Instead, the furious undead throw all the treasure they find away, in the same location (often at the bottom of a well or deep pit) where it is out of sight...

Or this:

[S]hadows appear to have been magically created, perhaps as part of some ancient curse...When victims [of Shadows' attacks] can no longer resist...the curse is activated and the majority of the character's essence is shifted to the Negative Material Plane. Only a shadow of their former self remains on the Prime Material Plane, and the transformation always renders the victim both terribly insane and undeniably evil... Fortunately, shadows rarely leave their lairs, and a bold party wishing to rescue a lost fighter or wizard should have plenty of time to venture forth and recover their friend...

But then your eyes stray upwards to the accompanying art, and there the excitement ends:


Is this the worst piece of D&D art ever drawn? It is possible. Admittedly the poor execution is really not helped by the design of the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, which did not provide for the possibility of backgrounds for the pictures - just a stark autopsy-table kind of whiteness entirely unsuited to presenting the creatures in a bestiary. But even granted that, why does the withered and sanity-blasted undead remnant of a once living human being, now existing only in darkness, look like it has just stepped out of Gold's Gym having downed a nice whey protein shake after a particularly vigorous chest-and-arms night? Why is he all spiky and clawed? Where does it say in the text of the entry that as well as shifting the victim to the Negative Material Plane, the curse also turns them into a Warhammer Orc? (Sorry, 'Orruk'.) Above all, why does it look as though Jeff Butler (for I assume it is he), tasked with drawing an illustration for the Shadow entry, just took a reject from his scrap paper pile for some other entry (Orog? Ogrillon?) and filled it in in silhouette with a black felt-tip pen? 

One can picture him at his desk, 4pm on a Friday afternoon, colleagues waiting downstairs to head off down the boozer, hastily scribbling, perhaps with the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth like a 6 year old doing some colouring-in. "Hold on a sec, guys, I've just got to finish off this last one for Zeb!"

The picture is neither scary, not interesting, and it does not evoke a reaction except for mild derision. Good bestiary art makes you want to use the monster in your game. This image provides you with no inspiration for how to do so, and it is impossible, looking at it, to envisage it doing anything much at all. It's an ugly black thing with claws. And that is all. 

0 becs des corbins. 

Monday, 24 August 2020

But...what IS a dickhead?

 A long time ago, I wrote this post. The advice it contained was, in summary, as follows:

As a rule I tend not to read much 'GMing advice' on blogs, because I think it all boils down to something rather simple: play with cool people who are your friends, not dickheads, and don't be a dickhead yourself. Mostly it all works out fine from that initial foundation.
For some reason this came back to me the other day while driving, and I started making a list in my head of the behaviours that would constitute being a dickhead. The irreducible core of dickheadedness, if you will. I offer some suggestions; you will I am sure have your own:

  • Dickheads bring sexual content into a gaming session. This is one of the fairly large number of things that traditional conservatives and woke types can merrily agree on: don't bring up the issue of sex unless you are really sure it's appropriate. And never bring up the issue of rape at all, because: why are you doing that other than to either be deliberately edgy, or be a creep?
  • Dickheads hog the limelight. If you feel like you are talking too much, you probably are. If you don't, you still probably are.
  • Dickheads don't come prepared. This is more of a DM thing - there is nothing worse than feeling as though you've phoned in a session - but it applies to players too (at least don't forget your dice). 
  • Dickheads treat everything like a joke. There's nothing wrong with humour in games. Indeed, "Dickheads take everything completely seriously" is the mirror image of this characteristic. But there is a line. And it is easily crossed. An RPG session should have a rich tonal palette. 
  • Dickheads engage in sociopathic behaviour in play. There is nothing wrong with being a rogue. There is something wrong with making the game entirely about how your character robs and/or kills everybody he meets. 
  • Dickheads come with a predetermined idea as to what their character is like, what the campaign will be about, and what events will happen in it, and then purposively work to try to achieve that vision at all costs and sulk when it doesn't pan out. (A friend of mine told a story about a person who turned up for a game insisting she be allowed to play a were-badger, and wouldn't accept that it a) didn't fit, and b) wasn't in the rules. This is dickhead behaviour.) 
  • Dickheads don't adapt to the tone or context of the game. If everybody else wants a 'narrative' style game and you insist on treating everything like a sandbox, you are engaging in dickhead conduct, and vice versa. 
  • Dickheads get way more drunk or stoned than everybody else at the table.
There are also pseudo-dickhead behaviours that can go either way. Being pedantic about your field of expertise can be annoying, but it can also be helpful. A WWII-era game I once ran had a serious gun nut as one of its players. He could have been a dickhead by correcting every tiny error I made as the DM, but in fact he was very helpful in improving the verisimilitude of the campaign. Similarly, being a 'rules lawyer' has the potential for advanced level dickheadishness, but sometimes it can be handy for the DM to have somebody to consult about the rules. 

You are free to add your own suggestions in the comments. 

Friday, 21 August 2020

Horror in the Daylight

Horror for the most part happens at night, in the shadows, in the dark. We are diurnal creatures and we rely on our sight above all other senses. Hence, "the night is dark and full of terrors".

But a bright summer's day can also exhibit a certain spookiness - a feeling of impending doom. I was struck by this earlier today while driving around the small English town (a largish village, really) which some of my relatives call home. The day was hot, cloudless, soporific. The town, let's call it 'L', is a short drive away from some of England's quaintest and most exclusive coastal resorts, not to mention beautiful areas of unspoiled natural beauty, and is surrounded by fetching picture-postcard countryside But 'L' itself is what I suppose Americans would call rust belt. It used to be a somewhat important railway interchange and, as the largest settlement for miles around, a commercial and engineering hub. But the railway closed down and the jobs disappeared and almost everyone there is now stoney broke. It is not a place for tourists, who even in the days of Covid flock to the local beaches in their thousands. 

During a hot summer's day in the school holidays, a town like 'L' takes on a malevolent air. Everybody who has any wherewithal whatsoever is at the beach, or having fun in their gardens, or away on a trip. The streets are quiet, populated only by the occasional lost soul wandering about with grubby plastic bags and an aged dog on a leash. The air shimmers with heat. Local pubs are mostly empty (the gastropubs in the villages around are full); suspicious-looking locals lurk in the doorways drinking flat beer and smoking. Occasionally, in the distance, you hear the sound of a car, or a burst of music from the window of some pokey flat. Playgrounds stand empty; swings, see-saws and climbing frames, rusty and overgrown with weeds, look as though they haven't heard a child's laughter in years. You wouldn't be particularly surprised to see Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach appear around the corner with six-guns drawn. At the same time, you feel as though you have slipped into some parallel reality in which all there will ever be, for ever more, is one long, hot, sunny afternoon, and in which there will never be the remotest hope of any event of any significance coming along to break the oppressive monotony which lays over the earth like a blanket.

Is there not the feeling, for those of you who are familiar with such scenes and moments, that there would be nothing particularly untoward if ghosts haunted the streets on days like this? If demons of despair, loneliness and anger lingered in the alleyways of the town, searching for victims upon whom to visit their hatred for the universe? If one's path was not stalked by a murderer who knew that the overwhelming lethargy of the townsfolk would prevent serious investigation of a death? If some nihilistic entropy-worshipping cult did not hide in plain sight, infested in the civic affairs of the town? If behind that second-story window from which music blares there wasn't a group of dabblers attempting to summon a Lovecraftian entity from beyond space and time?

Here, it is not what you can't see which scares you - or, rather, it is not the fact that you can't see which is the source of fear. It is the fact that you cannot hope. On a railway bridge a hundred yards or so from my uncle's house (I wish I had had the forethought to take a photograph) there is a grafito in yellow spray paint: FUCK LIFE. That is the type of horror which descends upon you on a hot day in a small depressed town in rural England. 

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Bridging the Minimalist-Maximalist Divide

 Comments on yesterday's post led me to Geoffrey McKinney's 'Mike's Dungeons'. From the blurb:

WHAT THE DEVIL? I took my DeLorean time machine back to 1983. I saw there four middle-school boys playing Dungeons & Dragons, and Mike was the name of the DM. I managed to steal Mike's dungeons and bring them back to 2020. I stole them fair and square, and now you can buy them. Mike did all the work, so we can be lazy. 

DETAILS, PLEASE? This is a massive dungeon of 78 hand-drawn levels, for character levels 1st through 10th. It was made with Moldvay/Cook's 1981 Dungeons & Dragons rules, but it can be used with other versions of the game. 

WHAT IT IS NOT: These dungeons are not for collecting, not for reading, not for gazing at, and not for displaying on your coffee table. It has no art, no stylish formatting, no production values at all. If you aren't going to use and abuse this in a game, there's no reason to buy it. 

WHAT IT IS: The word for this is FUN. These are the dungeons you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. It is a no-nonsense dungeon for playing D&D. You don't even need to study it beforehand. You can run it on-the-fly.

You can see the whole thing previewed on DriveThruRPG and it is very attractively priced.

McKinney's approach here is exceedingly minimal, as you will see. The dungeons are small and simple. There are a handful of house rules. The room descriptions are all (all!) like this:


In other words, when the author says you can run it on the fly, he means it.

There is much to admire here. The final product is cheap, effective at what it sets out to achieve, and fun. You can think of it as being something akin to the 'Billy' bookcase:

In other words, if you need a functional bookcase quickly, perhaps because of a dramatic shelving emergency in your home, you can nip down to IKEA and get this item of furniture for about £20 or something and it will work.

The problem is, I tend to want this:

Indeed, I've even written in the past about this predilection of mine:

My basic idea of a good game book (whether a good rule book, good module, good bestiary, whatever) is that it should be well-designed - which typically means efficiently designed - and interesting to read. Those are the platonic ideals. While the design should therefore be "minimalist" in a functional sense - it should be minimally complex, i.e. only as complex as it needs to be - the approach to content is subject to a totally different set of considerations. Give me good, interesting, exciting, readable, imaginative, dare I say even poetic, prose. I don't want to read a rule book written like a car manual. I want to read a rule book written by Proust, Ellroy or Vance. I don't mind how different the style is, but give me style. Give me voice. Give me something good that I actually enjoy reading for its own sake. 
By the same token, I don't want to read a book full of "This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents." I want a rule book full of real ideas to inspire and entice - ideas that mean something - and which I wouldn't have thought of myself. I can't get enough of those.

So how can we reconcile this? Is there a way for us McKinneyan minimalists and Stuartian maximalists to get along? Is there a way to make the minimalist approach appeal to the maximalist impulse? Is there a way to boil a dungeon or hexmap down to its essence in the way McKinney so masterfully achieves, while keeping it beautiful, or even revealing a fresh beauty of a kind? That is to say, can we make a D&D module into something like a tree by Mondrian - both efficient and artistically compelling?

You will have your own ideas. Here are two suggestions:

1) The dungeon (or hex) key as poetry - each entry constrained by having to be composed in a poetic form. Rhyming would perhaps be too difficult and almost definitely too lame for words, but haiku could work:

A: 20 orcs rest here/they are armed with swords and slings/the west door is locked [stats]

Longer entries could be composed of two, three, five verses, and so on, the only rule being that the number of syllables used must be exact. I could imagine reading this sort of thing to take on a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, and one would be tempted - as one always is when writing haiku - to lean towards the nostalgic, the wistful, the melancholic, the beautiful.

I am also sure that this would result in 'creativity in constraint' being leveraged highly effectively.

2) The dungeon as pastiche: each level loosely inspired by the painting of a particular artist, by a novel by a particular author, by a series of films, and so on. How would it be to make a dungeon the levels of which were all based on paintings by Brueghel? Or Francis Bacon? Or which were all based on a different Conan novel? Minimalist content, but symbolising something bigger in the whole.